LesWaters – Photo by Kertis Creative.

Interview by Scott Dowd
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Perhaps you were among those first patrons to settle into a seat at 617½ South Fourth Street in 1964 for a production by the newly formed Actors Theatre of Louisville. You may have joined the company’s subscriber list a few years later as Jon Jory and Alexander “Sandy” Spears presented plays in the 350-seat space reclaimed from an abandoned Illinois Central Railroad station at the foot of Seventh Street. If you were living in Louisville in 1972, you may recall the transformation of the old Louisville Bank Building and the adjacent Myers-Thompson display building into the new home of one of America’s premier regional theatre companies. My own first encounter with the theatre came as a college student in 1980. Today Actors Theatre of Louisville is preparing to celebrate the first 50 years of its history with an anniversary season of audience favorites selected both for their entertainment value and for the commentary they offer on the genre. Though relatively new to the position of Artistic Director at Actors Theatre, Les Waters has a distinguished theatrical pedigree. He and I sat down recently in his office, where he was busily reading scripts and making final decisions about this 50th anniversary season’s 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays.

SD:  You have been Artistic Director at Actors Theatre of Louisville for 18 months, but your history with the organization started much earlier.
LW:  My relationship with Actors Theatre began in 2000 when I directed a play by Chuck Mee called Big Love for the Humana Festival. Following the Humana Festival, Big Lovewas done again at Long Wharf, Berkeley Rep, The Goodman in Chicago and the New Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

SD:  Is that unusual for a Humana Festival play?
LW:  There is a long history of shows going out from Humana to have long, successful lives. 

SD:  When did you return to Louisville?
LW:  I came back in 2004 to work with Naomi Iizuka, who has a long working relationship with the theatre. Her play that year – also part of the Humana Festival – was At the Vanishing Point.

SD:  I remember that play because it was so closely associated with Louisville.
LW:  Well, it was about one of the great twentieth century photographers, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, a native of Lexington who died in the ’70s. It was also about Butchertown. Naomi had been here, on and off, for a couple of years researching and talking to people in the area about what it was like to live there and how the economy had shifted.

SD:  You actually performed the play in Butchertown, didn’t you?
LW:  We rehearsed and performed the play in a warehouse on Cabel Street in Butchertown. I had received several additional invitations from then-Artistic Director Marc Masterson, but I was never available because of commitments at Berkeley or somewhere else.

SD:  I suspect you had heard of Actors Theatre prior to the year 2000, correct?
LW:  I knew about Actors Theatre via the Humana Festival when I was still living in England. I believe it was Michael Billington, the theatre critic forThe Guardian newspaper, who first made me aware of the Festival. He would visit Louisville; and for people working in the theatre in England, it was one of the ways that we knew what was happening in American Theatre – particularly in the field of new work – that wasn’t centered in New York.

SD:  Did it seem unusual that a major festival like Humana was in Louisville, Kentucky?
LW:  I’ve been in the states now for seventeen years, but back then I really didn’t know where Louisville was. When I was living in England, I really had no context. It was just the name of a city. I knew that bourbon came from Kentucky and I knew of the Derby, but it was all part of some mystical landscape called “The South.” You can’t escape American culture and so you develop ideas that all of the Midwest looks like “The Midwest.” Los Angeles is Hollywood and palm trees. So it was interesting that the Humana Festival was in Louisville, but that fact didn’t have much meaning to me.

SD: I think that it is easier now than it was fifty years ago for an arts organization to be successful outside a major urban area.
LW:  True.

SD:  Have you found Louisville a pretty comfortable home for theatre in 2013?
LW:  Most Louisvillians know Actors Theatre’s history, and many are passionate about theatre. It can arouse strong emotions. Being in this job, I don’t hear the middle ground. I meet people who either loathe something or really love something. Either way, people do talk about it with a real sense of ownership. My own early career was at the Royal Court Theatre in London, where in 1956 John Osborne’s Look Back in Angermarked the beginning of modern British drama. So it’s interesting to be in an institution with a long legacy. There are “golden ages” for individuals when theatre was new or they were new to theatre, or when some other circumstance created a real passionate identification for them. It’s all really wonderful how people continue to discuss those productions with incredible immediacy.

SD:  We have all heard a presenter at one time or another claim to be indifferent to criticism as long as the piece motivated the audience to feel something. How does it make you feel when someone expresses strong negative emotion toward a piece?
LW:  I’m always interested. I’ve had really great conversations with people who have said they were confused by a particular show. In the instance I’m recalling, I asked what they thought the piece was about and they very accurately described the important elements. So I asked what they found confusing and they said, “But I didn’t know that when I was watching it.” I thought that was a really intriguing response because I couldn’t have described it in those terms. But somehow there was a disconnect for them in watching the piece. It was a good conversation for me to have.

SD:  One of the things that has struck me in watching productions over the last decade or so is an expansion of the theatre’s vocabulary.
LW:  How do you think?

SD:  It’s a lot less linear than it used to be. It seems to be less reliant on strict cause and effect.
LW:  Right, right. I think there are a lot of artists out there with an interest in exploring the form of theatre itself and looking at what happens when you take it apart. I think at the same time audiences have a real gift now for being able to read imagery at a fantastic speed. I remember working with Will Eno on Gnitthis past season – he was very intuitive in the way he trimmed dialogue to allow imagery to do the work unencumbered by language. He knew that the tableaux was a speedier method of communication at times than the dialogue and used them both to their best advantage.

SD:  Let’s talk about the anniversary season you have planned. I see Jon Jory will be bringing another adaptation from classical literature to the stage with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.
LW:  I don’t know how you could think of Actors Theatre without Jon. He is one of the giants of regional theatre on whose shoulders we stand. He is certainly the giant of this theatre company and had such a long history here. Tom Jones is a famous movie from the 1960s. I read the novel at school, and it still appears on those top 100 lists of great novels. As theatre, I expect it will be fun and sexy with a twist that Jon has incorporated into the play. After that, The Hypocrites are coming in to stage The Pirates of Penzance, which is a classic of its own genre performed in a way you would never have imagined. At that time of the year, in the dead of winter, one could do with a party. The Pirates of Penzance will be fun and interactive and done with great love toward Gilbert and Sullivan’s original.

SD:  Tell me about The Hypocrites.
LW:  They are a young, hip theatre group out of Chicago with a very unique style of performance. The Hypocrites have won many, many Jeff Awards (Chicago Theatre Awards). Sean Graney, the founding director, wanted to take a look at Gilbert and Sullivan. I went up to see their production of The Pirates of Penzance and I loved it – it’s very theatrical and really celebrates the theatre. It also demands some form of interaction from the audience, and I liked that.

SD:  Noises Off also fits neatly into that idea as well.
LW:  Meredith McDonough, my associate artistic director, loves Noises Off and she will be directing it this season. I think it’s probably the greatest comedy ever about the theatre, and it will be a great kick-off to the season. I am also very excited about Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. Last year Matthew Lopez’s play The Whipping Man asked questions about freedom and civil rights. I thought that was a great dialogue to have with a local audience. TheMountaintop will continue that conversation. Katori’s perspective on the Civil Rights Movement and this fictional recreation of the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life is very fascinating.

SD:  It also takes on a new relevance following the Supreme Court ruling that may launch the Civil Rights Movement 2.0.
LW:  Very much so. Then we add the great American play, and the best play about community that I know of:  Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. My relationship to this play is different than many people in American theatre because it wasn’t part of my cultural upbringing in England.

SD:  Is that good or bad?
LW:  Well, I don’t have all the audience’s expectations in front of me. Somebody asked me the other day, “What are you going to do to it?” That isn’t a question that makes much sense to me anyway. But since I don’t know how it’s done, I guess I’ll just do it my way. Interestingly, Will Eno wrote a play called Middletownthat we did at Steppenwolf. I know Will is passionate about Wilder; and when I read it, I see the influence. It’s interesting that Thornton Wilder is back in the vocabulary of many young theatre artists. I know of several directors in their twenties and thirties who are staging this play.

SD:  Over the past 75 years, Our Townhas become, perhaps, the iconic Americana play. So almost any time it’s staged, there is the temptation for a director to make it his or her own in some way.
LW:  I think it’s the most beautiful play! It’s an extraordinary play about the tiny routine bits of life that take place on the surface as the tectonic plates are shifting, unnoticed, beneath one’s feet. I’m reallylooking forward to working on it.

SD: I’m also looking forward to seeing what you do with it. Over the years, it has become such a pat fixture of high school drama programs that I think many of us have lost sight of its literary quality
LW:  It’s an extraordinarily unsentimental play. At times it takes a harsh look at life.

SD: You described last season as an exploration of love in its various permutations. What overarching theme would you use to describe this season?
LW:  It’s all about celebration. We’re celebrating the theatre because that’s what we are and what we do. We have put together a season that represents who we are. It is the best of us, but it also looks at how difficult it is to be our best selves sometimes. 

Actors Theatre’s 50th Anniversary season tickets are available through their box office at 502.584.1205 or online at ActorsTheatre.org. If you have never been to Actors Theatre, now is the time to check it out! Apply in person at the box office for an introductory offer to Kentucky and Indiana residents who have never purchased Actors Theatre tickets before.